Sunday, January 29, 2012

The "Retirement" of Bruce Arians Might Have Been Ill-Timed

As everyone knows by now, Bruce Arians has "retired" from football. Well, at least football played professionally in Western Pennsylvania, that is.

Look, let's just get this out of the way right off the bat: I'm no fan of Bruce Arians. I've been down on him as offensive coordinator since the infamous naked draw on third and six in the January 5th, 2008 Jaguars playoff game. The seed was planted at that point and kept growing with plenty of limbs and flourishes.

Arians' predictability and inconsistency at times were mind-boggling. It was almost as if he sometimes was thinking, "I'll run THIS play. I know it'll work because I just ran it the same way and it didn't work then, so I know they won't be expecting it again so soon. I'm so smart. I deserve a chocolate milk for that. *chocolate milk, chocolate milk, I love chocolate milk...*"

Ok, let me stop...I made him sound like he rode the short bus to school, and that isn't the purpose here. I'm simply writing this in an attempt to temper the actually undeserved and unnecessary Bruce Arians hatred.

While I have no problem overall with the departure of Arians, I just don't have nearly the same urge to run around like the Queen of Hearts either, saying, "Off with his head!" as others do. My biggest issue with this was just the timing. That's what bothers me. Arians' inefficiencies have been evident for a couple of years now. So, if he'd been gone two years ago, I'd have been carpooling with the rest of you to the South Side to help Arians pack. ("Ok, Bruce, what do you need? Just "need", not want. C'mon, move it! Let's get these boxes filled! Move it, move it! Your ride is waiting outside! He's got the engine runnin! Go, go, go! This is the last chopper outta Vietnam!!!")

Now, though, with these young wide receivers, a new, young tight end just starting to blossom and mature, and with your quarterback in his prime, the last thing you want is for that growth to be stunted by a completely new play book with new terminology, hand signals, etc... Thus, the so-called "power play" by the aforementioned QB to promote Randy Fichtner to be the new offensive coordinator.

Without getting too deeply into it, Fichtner has a good track record. He spent time at Memphis from 1990-1993, and then Fichtner returned to Memphis in 2001 to serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, instituting a new and effective spread offense that set school records for total offense. His new system allowed the teams to amass prolific offensive statistics, totalling over 5,000 yards in both 2003 and 2004 to rank in the top 10 for both yardage and scoring. A spread offense, by the way which ran the ball over 50% of the time as well.

Tomlin and Fichtner also have a history dating back to 1998 when working at Arkansas St. together. As soon as Tomlin became the Steelers head coach, Fichtner was one of Tomlin's first hires. So, considering he's already the quarterbacks coach, he'd make sense as being the next OC since he would take into consideration what plays the quarterback would want.

Getting back to the main subject, Arians has often been accused of questionable play calling, and of being predictable and/or inconsistent. Ok. Yeah, I'll give you those. Like I said, I've had my problems with him for a while. So, I know all too well about those imperfections. But, with all of that being said, I could still make, and often have made, the argument that there were just as many execution errors that led to the various offensive problems the Steelers had this year as inept play-calling problems caused by Arians.

There are several examples to choose from with regard to the aforementioned issues, both from the OC/play calling and from the execution standpoint. I've already mentioned the 3rd and six play against Jacksonville as one example, so we know Arians can be inept and leave you scratching your head. But there were also good plays that plain and simple were executed poorly. There were numerous missed hot reads, there were dropped passes, over and under thrown passes, missed blocks and missed assignments that were seen all year. All of that plays heavily into the 3rd down and red zone issues as well.

A good example of this involves Hines Ward. This year, Ward became the eighth wide receiver in NFL history to record 1,000 catches. He accomplished it on a shuffle pass in the week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns. Many have expressed dislike for the bubble screen and the shuffle pass both, except when they work of course (and by the way, the numbers show that they work the majority of the time), and this was an occasion when it didn't work.

Why, though, didn't it work? Was it poorly disguised? Poorly timed? No, it was poorly executed. It was a play that would have produced positive yardage had Mike Wallace or, I believe, Jerricho Cotchery, even thought about blocking D'Qwell Jackson. Instead, Jackson comes in untouched to register it as a completed pass for -3 yards. Poor execution of a potentially good play.

There are plenty of other examples to choose from, as well. Plus, remember that we are dealing with a pass-happy QB here who has the right to call audibles and change plays as he sees fit.

There are those times when we don't know the exact play called, but the results were obviously still basically player error. A good example would be from the 49ers game this past season.

In that game, Ben had a great opportunity to check down to his running back, but instead decided to force the ball into double coverage. Mendenhall was just standing there waiting. He even waived his arm(s) at one point. Ben just said, "Nope, I'm Ben Roethlisberger. I can do this." Mendenhall just stared, jumped, and shouted to get his attention. "Nope, I'm Ben Roethlisberger. I can do this." Mendenhall called Ben's name with a bullhorn and shot a starters pistol. "Nope, I'm Ben Roethlisberger. I can do this." Mendenhall brought the marching band onto the field and had them play a Steelers polka. "Nope, I'm Ben Roethlisberger. I can do this." What happened? Ben ignored the check down and threw an interception. Just try and blame that on the OC. Please, I beg you to try and do it.

You're saying to yourself, "Ok, Jason, l'll give you that. The team had their issues with regard to execution. But Arians was just too predictable." My response to that would be that I agree, but even if your offense is "predictable", even if a defense does know what's coming, they still have to be able to stop you.

We all remember the vintage Vince Lombardi film clip of him preparing his team. It was the classic, "We want to create a seal here and a seal here, then we'll run it right up the alley." The Packers did just that. Often. With precision. Despite the fact that teams knew it was coming. So, yes, you can be "predictable" if you've executed your end of things like you should. That aspect of it ultimately falls to the players. Ultimately, players have to make plays.

For those who didn't like Arians because of the presumed lack of running the ball and/or lack of a true fullback, I'd like to remind them to turn the page on their calendars...then to throw it away because it expired in 1992. The rules changes have made the NFL a very different game. Steelers fans thinking you can win Super Bowls pounding the football for 3 yards at a time between the tackles are not living in the real world. This game simply benefits the passing teams now.

Besides, the Steelers did run the ball. They ran it more than may be realized and more than other playoff teams did, especially on first down. The Steelers ran 55% on 1st down last year for a 4.6 yards per carry average. By way of comparison, the Packers and Patriots ran 45% on 1st down, and the Saints and Giants ran 43% on 1st down. Notice that it's the Super Bowl teams that ran it the least on first down.

So, the problem, organizationally, was that it was not run enough overall. That's where Art Rooney II stepped in.

We know that Rooney II wants to see more running and that this played into not extending another contract to Arians, but does that mean he wants to return to three yards and cloud of dust? Umm...no. While I do believe he wants more running, I don't think he means substantially more. I think they want quality and effectiveness. i.e. running 25 times to attain 125 yards as opposed to running 35 times for the same number of yards. Accomplishing this will still allow the play-action open up, Ben will take fewer hits, the whole offense will get better and the defense conversely will be able to rest more as well.

All of this having been said, at some point you do still reach a critical mass with the other inconsistencies and all that we tend to see. The bottom line is that Arians wasn't nearly as bad as people made him out to be. Was he great? No. Was he the football version of the anti-Christ? No! Only next season, though, will be able to tell us whether or not this was ill-timed.

This one thing is true, people in the NFL who actually know football were knocking on Arians' door as soon as he was let go. He's already the OC for the Indianapolis Colts. So, all the haters who forget that you need to breathe through your nose and not your mouth are either patting themselves on the back or ready to slit their wrists. It'll be interesting to see how much of which unfolds first.